January 6, 2019 – Be careful what you search for

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By Rev. Victor Kim
Matthew 2:1-12
(01-06-19) Epiphany

Epiphaneia, it’s a Greek word from which we get the word epiphany, which literally means manifestation, an appearance or expression of something.  In the church calendar we mark the Feast of Epiphany on the 12th day of Christmas, which is January 6th, which happens to be today, and we associate epiphany with the familiar story of the visit of the wise men, or Magi, to Jesus.  The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem and enter into the house where Mary was with Jesus. They are filled with overwhelming joy and once inside the house, they kneel down and pay homage to Jesus, offering him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Our story is one of adoration, welcome and proclamation, that this child, Jesus, is the King of the Jews, but far more than that, that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, the manifestation of the Divine in human form.  The story is an epiphany.

What do we do with epiphanies? What do we do with this story from the gospel?

The story of the Magi’s visit to Jesus, falling as it does at the beginning of every new year, often carries with it associations with newness and resolutions around our spiritual journey.  One of my favorite Christmas cards is the one which portrays the three wise men, depicted as kings with crowns, riding camels and following the star.  Here’s a version of that card.

Three Wise Men

But there is so much that is inaccurate about that depiction, for example, the original Greek text calls them magi, not kings or wise men, they were most likely priests or astrologers.  And we have no idea how many there were, but later tradition gave name to three because three gifts were offered.  As for the camels, well, they are as mythical as the donkey that Mary supposedly rode to Bethlehem; the Bible makes no mention of them.  Of course, in this digital age, nothing remains sacred for long, and so you may have seen this new take on the visit of the wise men, or should I say wise people.

Ultimately, it’s not whether its three wise men, or wise women, Magi or kings, or whether they’re riding donkeys or horses or just walking.  The most important part of the card has always been for me the inscription, “the wise still seek him.”

Maybe that’s one of our resolutions this year, to seek Jesus more in our spiritual life.  Maybe this is the year we’ve resolved to grow in maturity about what it means to be a child of God, a person of faith, a disciple of Jesus.  Maybe we’ve made that promise to ourselves, and probably we haven’t told anyone else about it because we don’t often speak publically about our internal spiritual struggles or hopes.  And if we have made that resolution to seek Jesus more, wonderful, but I think the story wants to warn us, be careful what you search for!

There’s a lot in this story that we often overlook.  For people who were given the title wise, these Magi seem anything but.  They saw a new star in the sky and understood it to be a portent of something significant.  They followed that star to Jerusalem, where Herod ruled as king, and dared to ask the question, where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  It would be like traveling to North Korea and asking Kim Jong Un, “Hey buddy, can you point me to the place where the person who is going to overthrow you is going to be born?”  Maybe they’re book smart, but they don’t seem to be too street smart.  And Herod, well he isn’t the reigning king of the Jews for nothing.  He’s disturbed by what he hears, but he plays it cool.  He’s frightened, he’s scared, actually paranoid, remember Herod is the king who had three of his own sons killed out of fear that they wanted his throne. If he’s willing to commit murder within his own family, then all of Jerusalem surely knows that no one is safe.  No wonder they’re afraid.

But Herod doesn’t let on about the fear in his mind.  He calls his advisors, and they tell him that it’s Bethlehem, this little, insignificant town, from where the prophets have said that the messiah would come.  And then in his best officious, diplomatic tone, Herod invites the Magi to search diligently for the child, presumably so that he wouldn’t have to, and to let him know once they’d found him, so that he too could go and pay him homage.  The Magi thank Herod and they set out.  We know that they find Jesus in Bethlehem and they probably would have gone right back to Jerusalem on their way home and told old Herod exactly where Jesus was.  But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and so they left for their home country by another road.

You know what’s pretty common about New Year’s resolutions, other than that most of us never end up keeping them past the first couple of weeks?  I think that our resolutions all tend to have a common element, which is that they are about our desire to be more in control.  We resolve to master our appetites, to control our cravings, to lose weight, to give up an addiction.  We resolve to learn a new skill, to take a course of action that will improve who we are.  We make a resolution to be more caring, to expand our sense of compassion, to be more disciplined in the exercise of our faith.  It’s about control, control over the kind of person we want to be, over the kind of life we want to have.  It’s like a map. We know where we are and we know where we want to get to, and we have a pretty good idea of what we need to do, the journey it will take for us to get there.  But the text tells us that when it comes to Jesus, we need to be careful about what we search for.

The Magi found the one who was born king of the Jews.  They were filled with overwhelming joy, but not long after that, they get a warning, don’t go back to Herod.  You have to imagine a bit here.  Everyone in the area knows about this traveling troupe of visitors from the east.  Word has spread from Jerusalem throughout the land.  They are Gentiles in a Jewish land; they stick out like Donald Trump would if he were to visit North Korea.  Now they have to sneak back home and avoid any contact with Herod or his lackeys.  Risk has entered in to the equation.  They no longer are in control of the situation and they have no maps for this part of the journey.  What the text tells us is that if you encounter an epiphany, you’ve got be prepared to lose control.

What do we do with an epiphany?

When God is made manifest in our lives, in the life of the world, what does that do to us?  If we take it seriously, we have to confess that God then becomes the one in control, not us.  The response to epiphany is not control or confidence, but obedience and trust.  If we are honestly going to search for a closer relationship with Jesus this year, if we are truly wanting to grow in our faith, as followers and disciples of Jesus, we need to be ready to accept and embrace risk, to be told to take a different path from the ones we’re used to.  We need to be prepared to travel along a less familiar road than the one we’re currently on, maybe even one for which there’s no map.

Will this be the year when instead of already making up our minds about what we will do in terms of our spiritual growth, maybe I’ll read more scripture or spend more time in prayer, or maybe I’ll serve more, whether at church or elsewhere, all of which aren’t bad things at all, but what if instead of retaining our own control over what we think needs to happen, what if this year we allow ourselves to be open to what God has in mind for us, as individuals and as the church here at RPC?

If it is, we’re going to have to listen carefully, for the voice of Herod is always among us, often in the guise of reason or diplomacy. Herod’s is the voice that is most common.  It’s the voice we expect, the one with authority in this world.  Herod’s is the voice of safety, that one that doesn’t expect too much of us.  Just do as you’re told, do what’s expected, don’t risk too much.  Go back to Jerusalem, report back to the authorities, and you get to go home just the way you came.  But there’s another voice, one that comes when we’re not expecting it, a voice that tells us to travel by a different road.  Herod’s voice would ignore the epiphany and the Magi have experienced too much to remain the same. Be careful what you search for.  You might find it and when you do, when epiphany encounters you, the road cannot be the same.

As we begin this new year, can we understand that all our resolutions, as good as they are, as well intentioned as they are, cannot take the place of openness to the epiphany of God, the revelation of God’s spirit, for us, for the church? Epiphany is not about us, it’s about God, who will reveal what God wants us to know and invites us to worship and kneel and offer our best with overwhelming joy.

If we seek Jesus, a closer relationship with Jesus, the danger is that we just might find him.  And if we do, if epiphany encounters us, it will leave us less in control than when we started.  Are we ready for that, are we willing to accept that? Can we imagine accepting that?  Can we imagine letting go of control, allowing for risk in our spiritual journey, a risk that might even spill out into how we practically live our lives, in the choices we make, where we will invest our time, our energy, our love, our treasure, who we will accept, embrace, forgive and love. If we decide that we will be open to Epiphany, then all we can do is take one step at a time, trusting that God is directing our journey.

Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, writes that the pattern of growth and healing, which is always through loss and renewal, is the way that life perpetuates itself in ever new forms, but those changes can feel like death and can disappoint or even scare most of us.  So, we often retreat to the status quo, something we recognize and feel that we have some control over.  But we often end up worshiping old things as substitutes for eternal things.  But when we recognize this pattern of constant change, yearning and developing, we also come to understand that the future is in God’s hands and we agree to humbly hold the present with a tentativeness we can’t control or predict.[1]

It’s hard not to be in control, it’s hard because it will be unpredictable, there might not even be any maps, and we’re going to have to learn to trust in ways we never thought possible.  But trust this; the God who comes to us in epiphany is a God who is for us, all of us.  That’s what’s revealed in Jesus, isn’t it?

God is for us, for all of us, so much that God became human, one of us, not so that we will be spared the sometimes heartbreak of human existence, but so that when our hearts do break, the one who is for us and who is one of us, will help to heal us and give us the courage to hold onto hope and live in the embrace of love, not fear.  God is for us in Jesus Christ and in coming as a baby in Bethlehem promises that God will not leave us alone, alone in the darkness of loss or pain, loneliness or fear.

The epiphany of God in Jesus is the promise that light will shine in the darkness and no matter how dark and shadowy our world may seem at times, the darkness will not overcome the light, and our despair will never swallow up our hope.  Will we trust this?  It’s a new year, a new beginning.  If this is the year we truly want to grow in our relationship with God, in the way we will live as the people of God, then maybe it’s time to trust and to let go of our resolution to be in control, maybe its time to ditch the maps we’ve used before because they only take us down roads we’ve already been.  If we hope to get someplace different, then maybe we need to be open to risk, open to epiphany, we need to travel by another road, one without a map, and learn to trust God with our journey.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Written by Rev. Victor Kim
Preached on 06 January 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church.

[1] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation.  Everything Changes, Tuesday, January 1, 2019